Acknowledging and cheering the women who dared to speak out against the system

Suzette Jordan, the woman who chose to bravely speak out about being gang raped in Kolkata two years ago, died last week after a short stint in hospital. She was 40.

In a moving tribute to her mother, Jordan’s 18-year-old daughter, Rhea, said: “She was the only person I know who has, from the beginning till the very end, been true to herself, and learned from her mistakes, even though she made one too many of them. She showed me that no one is perfect, and that we shouldn’t judge anyone… When I grow up I want to be like my Mother, be real.

For Jordan, the decision to speak out, to choose to be identified as herself, a woman who was a rape survivor, and a fighter, could not have been easy. And yet Jordan spoke, not only to her family and friends, not only to the media, but also at training workshops with lawyers, and judges, and police, describing what happens to sexual assault victims and survivors in the institutions that are meant to provide them justice, demanding that these institutions reform themselves, become more sensitive. Every time she did so, she was nervous, fearful, but strong.

I was powerfully reminded of this when I watched the much-talked about, and unfortunately titled, documentary India’s Daughter. As the accused, Mukesh Singh, held forth about rape and men who rape, and women who, according to him, invite rape, he was deadpan, with not an iota of regret. He spoke with the ease and confidence of someone who knows that even if he’s committed a crime, he is not the person who will suffer a lifetime of regret and shame. He was not nervous, he had no fear; just a sense of impunity.

Indeed many men accused of sexual assault and rape know that once they get out, there will be a family to receive them, a system in which many will secretly look on them with admiration. And sometimes even a career in politics where they may, at some point, be called upon to speak out against the very crime of which they are guilty. Surely there is something wrong with a system in which criminals can speak with confidence about their crimes and those they attack feel ashamed and stigmatised.

In a New York Times article about rape in the US army, Mary F Calvert describes how she happened upon the story of army rape, and how she was horrified to find not only how many stories there were, but also how many of the women who had been targeted were, even after years, ‘harassed, shunned, ridiculed, drummed out of their regiments’; many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What does it take for women to speak out about sexual violence? As story after story tells us, the costs are high, the consequences sometimes terrible. And yet, how can silence be the only option, why must speaking out carry the consequences it does? Take Bhanwari Devi, isolated in her village, confronted by an economic boycott against her family of potters; take the young woman who had the courage to speak out about sexual harassment at the hands of her high-profile boss, RK Pachauri; take the intern who spoke out against a judge. Or take Soni Sori, accused of being a Maoist and anti-national, fearless in speaking out against her jailors and the State.

Or take Jordan herself. Repeatedly humiliated during the rape trial by defence lawyers, who resorted to parading her underwear in court, and a hostile judge, she refused to be cowed down. Instead, she continued to speak, to fight, not only for herself but also for others.

Women of courage these. We do not acknowledge them enough. Were it not for their words, the question of sexual violence would be shrouded in an even deeper silence: imagine living a life, sometimes in proximity to the perpetrator of violence, knowing that you can never mention it. Thousands of women lived through rape during Partition and never spoke about it. Our history is poorer for this, but our activism, our campaigns, our determination are enriched by the words and the courage of those who choose to speak.

Urvashi Butaliais an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan

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